Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918)

Grafton Tyler Brown, Grand Canyon Falls from Hayden Point, 1889, oil on canvas, 36.5 x 24 inches, signed and dated lower right, titled verso

“The earliest known African American artist on the West Coast of the United States was Grafton Tyler Brown,” said Harry Henderson and Romare Bearden in their book, A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present. They indicate that while Brown was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1841, he and his family (who were free blacks) moved to California between 1849 and 1851, after the discovery of gold, the passage of the California state constitution, which specifically excluded slavery, and the admission of California into the Union as a free state in 1850. 

Sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s Brown became a lithographer in San Francisco, working for C. C. Kuchel. He created maps, views of towns and boundaries of cities and territories, and geological surveys. In the 1860s, after the death of his employer, Brown took over the business. Then, sometime in the 1870s he gave up lithography and concentrated his efforts on painting landscapes.

The subject matter of his landscapes was pristine nature, mostly in northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Columbia, Canada. “Such landscapes seem to revere the land for its natural beauty rather than its potential for land exploitation and development,” said Lizatta LeFalle-Collins in the St. James Guide to Black Artist.

Brown’s work is in the collections of the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; California African American Museum, Los Angeles, California; Oakland Museum, Oakland, California; British Archives, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia; and the State Museum of Washington, Olympia, Washington.